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The 5.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Washington, D.C. on August 23 caused damage to the Washington Monument. (Evan Vucci / AP Images)

Scaling the Washington Monument

Mountaineering park ranger Brandon Latham talks about how engineers investigated the monument from hundreds of feet above the ground

smithsonian.com

What damage has been found so far?
They are finding some loose spalls, or pieces of stone. Of course, they are finding cracks that we have actually seen from photographs taken from a helicopter already. From a structural standpoint, they still feel very confident that the monument is sound. That is the main take away. There is going to be some work to be done on it, but there is nothing too serious.

What would you say, in your climbing experience, best prepared you for this type of assignment?
My main responsibility as a mountaineering ranger is to perform search and rescue activities up on Denali. Sometimes that involves using rope systems similar to the rope systems that the engineers are using on the monument, just in a little bit different fashion. It is still a two-rope system. Of course, the anchors are different. We are using snow and ice anchors versus rock and steel anchors that the engineers are using.

I have been climbing for 20 years, and I have been working in the search and rescue and rope access worlds for 10 to 12 of those years. I also worked as an instructor for a company that teaches the physics behind these types of rope systems. The company is called Rigging for Rescue out of Colorado. It is a research- and testing- based company for these types of systems. My background in climbing and rope access is important. But I think understanding the physics and math behind it all is what I bring most to the table, being able to explain to people, most of all the Park Service, that it is going to be a sound system.

When you first started climbing as a teenager, you were climbing on overpasses in Louisiana, right?
Yeah. That is where I first started to learn how to climb. There are no cliffs or crags in Louisiana. Some friends of mine actually climbed in Oklahoma before, on some cliffs and crags. They started epoxying little chips of rock onto the overpass, and that was our cliff so to speak.

Have you rappelled off any buildings?
I have rappelled on buildings around the country—nothing bigger than maybe 30 or 40 stories, which is 300 or 400 feet. It is basically all construction work. Have you seen huge banners on buildings, like out in Las Vegas? I have done some of that work. The rope access systems are used a lot on oil rigs. Rope access is also used to inspect dams for cracks and other things.

What is the closest natural equivalent to rappelling down the Washington Monument?
Imagine you had a big granite cliff that was 555 feet tall just outside of the city, and you went out there and you clipped a sling around a big tree at the top and you put a rope down and clipped yourself in and you started rappelling. The environment, of course, is a little different. It’s a natural setting, versus a manmade structure. The main difference between the two, rappelling on a cliff and rappelling on a manmade structure, is going to be the equipment that is involved. When people go out and rappel on a cliff, most of the time they just have one rope, because there is a different level of acceptable risk. But you still have exposure. From an exposure standpoint, the feeling of being in that vertical world is going to be very similar.

The Washington Monument is currently closed. The Wiss, Janney, Elstner team plans to provide a report on it findings by mid-October, and the National Park Service will decide what repairs are needed before the monument reopens.

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